Lawyer from Netflix’s ‘The Staircase’ visits Scotland


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David Rudolf, Lin Anderson and Donald Findlay QC discussed all things ‘The Staircase’ at the O2 Academy in Glasgow. Photo credit to Vicky Tait.


David Rudolf, the criminal defence lawyer who represented Michael Peterson during the true crime series, ‘The Staircase’, visited Glasgow to give a talk.

The audience at Glasgow’s O2 Academy gave David Rudolf a very warm welcome as he walked onto the stage with a Scotland-themed gift bag. The applause resembled something you might expect to hear at a rock concert or a popular comedy show, not for the entrance of a criminal defence lawyer. However, the world’s obsession with true crime documentaries such as ‘Making a Murderer’ and ‘The Staircase’ has resulted in a fascination with court cases and the people behind them.

‘The Staircase’, released on Netflix in June 2018, tells the story of Michael Peterson, a writer from Durham, North Carolina, who was accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen, in December 2001. She was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home and although Michael Peterson denied killing her, the prosecution persuaded the jury he was guilty and he was charged with murder in 2003 after one of the longest trials in the state’s history.

In 2011, it came out Duane Deaver, who conducted the blood spatter analysis for the prosecution, had provided misleading results during Peterson’s trial and exaggerated his level of experience. As Deaver’s evidence was detrimental to the jury’s decision in 2003, Peterson was released and placed on house arrest. In 2017, he entered an ‘Alford plea’ (a guilty plea signifying the defendants recognises there is sufficient evidence against him/her, but can claim to be innocent), meaning he was sentenced to 86 months in prison, which he had already served, and was therefore free.

David Rudolf, who was joined on stage by crime writer Lin Anderson and advocate Donald Findlay QC, indulged fans of the show by discussing how ‘The Staircase’ came to be, ‘junk science’ and the evidence used against Michael Peterson in the trial, the differences between American and Scottish criminal justice systems and of course, the famous ‘owl theory’.

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Fans queuing outside the O2 Academy in Glasgow. Photo credit to Vicky Tait.

As David Rudolf recounted his experience representing Peterson, the conversation flowed between the three experts, and as they compared and contrasted the different systems in place in Scotland and the US, it became clear Anderson and Findlay, alongside the audience, were enthralled by the struggles Rudolph faced during the case.

The lawyer spoke about the ‘incompetence’ of the prosecution and how it seems they were sabotaging Peterson’s case from the outset. When Peterson was a columnist for his local newspaper, he often criticised the local authorities, which led to a significant amount of speculation on whether the prosecution was prejudiced against him.

Findlay stated he would expect a crime scene to be meticulously and carefully examined by police officers if the case were to have taken place here, Rudolf described how the scene of the crime was treated in Peterson’s case.

“There were different people coming and going without authorisation, people were constantly walking back and forth through the crime scene and actually stepping over Kathleen Peterson’s body,” he said.

”Literally, the crime scene was completely trampled over.”

Rudolf discussed his admiration for the ‘not proven’ verdict which exists in Scottish criminal courts, but not American ones. This verdict occurs when there is not enough evidence beyond reasonable doubt whether an individual committed the crime. He wished it was an option in American courts, because ‘it is a more truthful way of dealing with things.’

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Fans of ‘The Staircase’ had the opportunity to ask David Rudolf questions about the famous true crim series. Photo by Olivia Hill.

Although the ‘owl theory’ didn’t feature in the documentary, it has been heavily discussed on the internet since the series’ release. The theory states Kathleen Peterson was attacked by a barred owl which subsequently led to her death. There is a significant amount of evidence that supports this, including the lacerations found on her scalp, the owl feather found in her hand and the small dots on her face that resembled those caused by an owl’s beak. Rudolf discussed the theory in depth and explained he is more in support of it now than he was at the time of the trial:

”In 2003, there was no evidence to support the theory, so I thought it was completely ridiculous.”

”But now there is evidence to support the fact that people do get attacked by barred owls. You can go on YouTube and there are videos of it happening,” he added.

During his world tour to talk to fans about ‘The Staircase’, Rudolf wants to convey an overriding message for the audience to take away with them. He outlined the importance of transparency and always asking questions, saying:

”It is an honourable thing we do here and we can’t do our jobs until we know the truth Don’t always believe what you are told and always ask questions.”

”I get to talk to you and show you these problems I have carried with me for 40 years. To get real change we need all of you. Get out there and spread the message.”

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